KOSICE, Slovakia – HC Kosice will get another chance to break into the Champions Hockey League next season. The team claimed the top spot in the Slovakian Extraliga after a 2-1 victory over HKM Zvolen last weekend. With one round left to play, Kosice’s 123 points are 14 ahead of second-place Slovan Bratislava. A direct result from Kosice's regular season success is a ticket to the second round of the CHL qualification.
Kosice will be eager to make up for lost ground after they finishing last in the CHL qualification tournament behind Swiss SC Bern and Germany's Sinupret Ice Tigers Nuremberg with a pair of narrow losses.
Not making it to the CHL group stage meant Kosice missed out a lucrative payout. So the CHL qualification was one of the main objectives for the team that plays in a financially tight league.
Founded in 1962 as an army hockey team, Kosice won the Czechoslovakian league twice and added three more Slovakian titles when the country became independent in 1992. Nevertheless, its last title dates back ten years; 1999. Last season they came close, very close, to a fourth title but lost in a dazzling seven-game final series against rival Slovan Bratislava. Kosice came back from a 0-3 deficit in the series but eventually lost the seventh game.
The Slovakian Extraliga split into two groups after 46 games with the top six teams playing a home and away series. The teams ranked 7-13 also faced each other fighting for the remaining two playoff tickets. Kosice will most likely face MHC Martin in the quarterfinals. Martin, the 2009 Continental Cup winner, is three points behind seventh ranked Banska Bystrica with two games left.
Kosice's success this season is mainly a result of solid squad selection. Not as rich as Slovan Bratislava but carrying a bigger budget than most other Slovakian teams, Kosice has focused on building a roster full of solid and proven veteran players.
The core of team is nearly 30 years old and the squad is almost fully made up of domestic players. The imports consist of a trio of Czechs. Yet the squad takes full advantage of their experience. Kosice took the Extraliga by storm starting with a 5-2 victory over Slovan Bratislava. In the ten games that followed, they were victorious on all but one occasion. The kick-start to the season earned them the top spot early on and Kosice never looked back. Their longest losing streak this season was limited to just a pair of games.
Between the pipes, 32-year-old Miroslav Lipovsky continues to be one of the most solid goaltenders in the Slovakian Extraliga. Having accumulated over 100 penalty minutes in the past two seasons, the goaltender is known to be short-tempered. “Referees and the team know me better now. They know I was very explosive but gradually I am better in controlling myself,” he says. This season Lipovsky posted 'just' 14 penalty minutes and leads the league in GAA (2.24) and is third in save percentage (92.3).
In front of Lipovsky, a solid defense led by 28-year-old Jan Tabacek resulted in Kosice conceding the fewest goals in the Extraliga (130). The Anaheim Mighty Ducks’ sixth-round pick of 2001 signed for Kosice this season after a three-year spell with Czech team Sparta Prague. He hasn’t disappointed. His five goals and 26 points rank him at the top of defenceman on the team. Yet, Tabacek isn’t afraid to play a physical game while also posting an impressive +37 rating, fourth in the league among defenders. His partner, Czech Jaroslav Spelda, turns 34 on February 26, but is still going strong with a +38 plus-minus rating.
Offensively, Kosice has outscored all teams with 226 goals in 55 games, an average of over four goals per game. They have three players who rank among the top ten in the league and five players hit the 20-goal mark.
Right winger Rudolf Huna leads the team in scoring with a career best 30 goals and 69 points. Former NHLer Peter Bartos is still going strong at the age of 35. He is close to break his personal career record just shy two points of his best 52 points. Also providing regular offence are centre Stanislav Gron (57 points) and Juraj Faith (55). Faith is also a main contributor on the power play. He posted 20 points with the man advantage.
The 32-year-old will likely miss the start of the playoffs due to a rib injury. Although he did continue to play, Faith felt something was wrong. “I could not shoot and pass. I also had problems breathing,” he admitted. “Normally, treatment will take up four weeks but I hope to return sooner. Unfortunately, I fell ill now and every time I sneeze or cough it feels like someone stabs a knife into my back.”
Kosice will head into the playoffs as the top seed for the fourth time in Slovakian history. Don’t bet on Kosice to slow down in its final game against third-ranked HK 36 Skalica. A win in regulation for the team coached by Anton Tomko means they would break a domestic point record. Since the 2000-2001 season, the first in which the three-point system was introduced, HKM Zvolen holds this record with 125 points. Kosice’s previous point record was set in 2007 when they posted 106 points.
Despite the impressive point totals, Kosice can expect some stiff competition in the playoffs. Second-ranked Slovan Bratislava can count on an, at least, equally strong roster. The reigning champions will want to make sure they will return to the CHL. Carrying the largest budget in the league, the pressure will be on the shoulders of the players to keep the silverware in the Slovakian capital.
Third-ranked HK 36 Skalica also clipped the 100-point mark. They are the dark horses of the post-season with the league’s most dangerous offensive duo. Zigmund Palffy is still the hottest property in the Extraliga despite his 36 years. The veteran of over 700 NHL games has already equaled the league’s point record (99). A record that includes playoff games and was held by Pavol Demitra during the NHL lock-out season and Palffy himself last season. A single point against Kosice would see him break the magic 100-point-barrier for the first time in Slovakian history. Palffy currently rides a red hot 13-game scoring streak. Profiting from Palffy’s work is centre Juraj Mikus. The 22-year-old is one of Slovakia’s brightest young players and has 31 goals and 59 assists this season.
In the quarterfinals, Skalica will meet struggling Dukla Trencin. The traditional top team finished a disappointing sixth and despite changes behind the bench, has not been able to turn things around. In the second part of the regular season, among the top five teams, Dukla Trencin managed just a single win. To make matters worse, they lost twice against Skalica (3-8 and 2-7).
HKM Zvolen and MHK 32 Liptovsky Mikulas complete the quarterfinal pack. Both teams have 93 points in what promises to be an even series. Zvolen holds the edge in mutual games this season winning four of the six meetings.